Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dr. Frazier Rides Cambodia

Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Contributing EditorArticles|RSS

Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Thursday, May 07, 2009When a large displacement motorcycle stopped it always attracted a crowd because they were seldom seen in Cambodia.
When a large displacement motorcycle stopped it always attracted a crowd because they were seldom seen in Cambodia.
Dog eye soup, vine entwined jungle temples and warnings about staying on the roads and paths, never stepping off them, spelled adventure not far from the urban jungles of Bangkok. A short airline flight and a hand full of dollars had me adventuring far away from the millions of people, smog and humidity for which Bangkok was infamous. 

Cambodia had a reputation for being underdeveloped while at the same time accommodating to travelers and adventure seekers. The country, with Vietnam on the east, Laos to the north and Thailand to the west, was a cultural mix reflecting the cultures that had marched through over the last 100 years. The French had been there, leaving behind French architecture and cooking. The Vietnamese had occupied Cambodia after the Vietnam War. There was also a strong Chinese link, but the people and language remain 90% Khmer, with roughly 95% of the estimated 13,000,000 residents Buddhists. Khmer is the primary language, with English and French passing if enough people were around to try both. 

Cambodia is slightly smaller in size than the American state of Oklahoma. With 275 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Thailand and 66% of the country forest or woodlands, also known as jungle, there was room for exploring. 

A visa was purchased upon arrival at the border, or airport in Phnom Penh, for $20 US and a passport size photograph. To secure the visa and pass through immigration at the airport took less time than it did for the luggage to be offloaded from the airplane. A 20-minute shuttle ride had me at a central hotel checking in, thankful I did not have to manage the chaos and mania of driving on the main road to the center of the city. 

A motorcycle taxi  also called a tuk-tuk  in Phnom Penh  was waiting for passengers.
A motorcycle taxi, also called a tuk-tuk, in Phnom Penh, was waiting for passengers.
I had come to Cambodia before, both by flying in from Bangkok and overland riding a Thailand-registered motorcycle. This time I took the tourist option of airplane-hotel shuttle-with a hotel reservation. To fly into Phnom Penh was more cost effective than spending the three days of overland travel time and associated costs of riding my own motorcycle, thereby giving me four extra ground days and more funds to explore Cambodia. 

Arriving in Phnom Penh, the first thing I again noticed was the large number of small motorcycles on the road. It was like arriving in Hanoi: thousands of 100-125cc motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic like ants. A good motorcycle guide book, The Ultimate Cambodia Travel Guide (ISBN 978-99950-918-0-4) by motorcyclist/author Matt Jacobson, best described the traffic as follows: 

“Traffic in Cambodia, and especially in Phnom Penh, is crazy and unpredictable, with vehicles and motorcycles coming at you from all directions, including what is supposed to be your lane of traffic. People turn into your lane at full speed without looking for traffic and don’t give a second thought to cutting right out in front of you if they want to drive across the street. There are lanes within lanes, as it’s common practice for people to drive down the street the wrong way.” 

Phnom Penh, with a population of over 1,200,000, was the best entry point for finding a motorcycle to purchase or rent, as well as acclimate to the culture and environment. The town was tourist friendly, sleeping and eating ranging from backpacker lodges to upscale four star hotels. 

A combination motorcycle-bus-trailer was carrying goods and people to the market.
A combination motorcycle-bus-trailer was carrying goods and people to the market.
To get around town there were several inexpensive options versus the seeming foolishness of renting a car. The most numerous were the moto-taxis which were small motorcycles that charged a minimum of $1 to let me ride pillion. I used my own helmet and often prayed as the pilots wove in and out of traffic, sometimes going in the opposite direction on one-way streets and seldom slowing for a stop sign or stop light unless a policeman was directing traffic. 

Surviving a moto-taxi ride in Phnom Penh is an adventure in itself. I tried to tell myself not to worry, the moto-taxi drivers knew what they were doing, but after seeing several accidents that were clearly pilot error and resulted in major pain and suffering for the pillion, I learned to yell at my drivers when I thought they were exceeding my adventure envelope. Twice I made drivers stop, paid them $1 and changed moto-taxis, once because my driver was drunk when he picked me up, and once when I realized my driver very badly needed glasses. 

The next step up for local transport are the tuk-tuks. These are twice as expensive as the moto-taxis, but because they are a small motorcycle pulling a four-seat trailer behind, they are slower and less prone to weave in and out of traffic. 

The least expensive and slowest way to get around the capital of Cambodia was by cyclo  here a broken one and the owner being carried to a repair shop.
The least expensive and slowest way to get around the capital of Cambodia was by cyclo, here a broken one and the owner being carried to a repair shop.
The slowest, cheapest and the safest way to get around town are the rickshaws or cyclos - three-wheel bicycles with the driver in the back, and a two-seat bench in the front. A downside to the cyclo was the driver seldom spoke English or French and unless I knew where I was going and could direct him I would find him aimlessly peddling until I sorted out some destination he knew or some passing moto-taxi driver could suggest to him. 

I allowed three days in Phnom Penh to find a solid motorcycle. There are numerous rental agencies and depending on my mechanical knowledge of the brand, model and luck, it easily took that long to find a rental that could hold up for the time I wanted to use it. Most of the rental motorcycles are in the 250cc range and had come into Cambodia either as parts or well-used motorcycles out of Japan. A majority of the rentals were dual-purpose models that came with few accessories, some without speedometers or electrics that worked. 

The rental agencies required I leave my passport with them as security against loss or damage to the motorcycle, which was a bit unnerving. I made copies of my passport and visa pages before handing over the passport for security. 

2009 was my fourth time renting motorcycles in Cambodia, so I had the advantage of having learned from previous experiences that I needed to bring everything I might need with me because besides the rental motorcycle and rental agreement little else came with it, such as a tool kit or tire repair kit. Several rental motorcycles I looked at did not have ignition keys or fork locks. It was rumored that some rental agencies gave the unknowing renter a padlock to secure the motorcycle which was easily cut or unlocked by the rental agency associates and stolen. 

There were some of the items I learned to bring with me: 

1. My own helmet and riding gear. While some rental agencies had helmets, they were as fragile as eggshells and needed a microwave cleaning. 
2. A large tool and spare parts kit that included tire repair tools, a hand air pump and spare inner tubes. 
3. Bungee cords or tie downs. 
This rental Honda 250 cc Baja was a common rental option. It was about twice as large as the average motorcycle in Cambodia.
This rental Honda 250 cc Baja was a common rental option. It was about twice as large as the average motorcycle in Cambodia.
4. Soft sided bags and a tank bag. 
5. A small handlebar windscreen for longer trips, one that clamped to the handlebars. 
6. A seat pad, later an inflatable one, but minimally a sheep skin with rubber backing. 
7. Helmet lock and chain and lock for the motorcycle. 

I set-up the motorcycle and took a day ride to see what needed adjustment, how much oil it burned, and how it handled both on and off-road. Twice I returned motorcycles to the rental agencies and exchanged them for other models because of either poor running or poor handling. One agency installed a new rear tire, chain and sprockets before I left for a 10-day trip. 

The main roads, while paved, required full attention due to potholes, errant drivers of other vehicles, free roaming animals and breakage. A safe speed was 45-60 mph when the road was wide open and vision good. In villages and towns common sense would slow me down to a speed that was similar to other traffic. 

Once I got away from the larger towns like Siem Reap or Sihanoukkville, eating and sleeping was always an adventure. 
 25.00 would get a clean room near a beach with parking for the motorcycle in the hotel lobby for security for the night.
$25.00 would get a clean room near a beach with parking for the motorcycle in the hotel lobby for security for the night.
A village might have a hotel or guesthouse where someone spoke English, but even when they did not I could negotiate a room or a meal by pointing and using simple hand language. US dollars were accepted everywhere and preferred, however often I would get a hand full of the Cambodian currency (riels) as change. There were few ATMs and although some hotels would take a credit card, there was a service charge for doing so. US dollars, in small denominations ($1, $5, $10 and $20) were the best way to pay the way. Money changers were in larger cities and towns and I usually tried to keep a combination of riels and dollars ready to pay bills. At a restaurant or small hotel pulling out a $100 US bill or travelers check was a way to lose travel time while I had to hunt for a money changer. Sometimes, if I could not pay the fare with US dollars or did not have enough Cambodian riels, the shop, restaurant or gas stop owner would accept Thai baht, but again in smaller denominations. I concluded that someone used to traveling on credit or debit cards was not going to get very far outside of Phnom Penh, maybe less than half a tank of gas, before they realized Cambodia was far different than Oklahoma. 

One of the attractions to Cambodia is the vast network of unpaved roads and tracks, many not shown on maps. Often these would end at a small village where residents would point onward and make an X sign with their hands or arms, meaning either the track ended or it was unsafe due to unexploded ordinance. 

During the wet or rainy season many of these tracks are impassable, with bridges washed out or water running too deep to cross. Returning to the same track during the dry season, six months later, the same bridge would be ten feet above a barely trickling creek. 

The best travel times to Cambodia are November through February. The wettest season is September and October. During the high travel season hotel space is difficult to find in tourist destinations like Siem Ream, where thousands of tourists arrived each day to explore the temples of Angkor. As with hotels, motorcycle rentals are less of a renters market during the high season. 

Internet cafes are plentiful and inexpensive in major tourist destinations, although some of the equipment was old and the speed often slow. Numerous hotels in the major cities offer WIFI for the traveler who wishes to be tethered to the Internet on a daily basis. 
This was a local tire repair shop  quite common to be found operating on streets and sidewalks. Often a flat tire would be patched without removing the wheel from the motorcycle  one advantage of having a small motorcycle.
This was a local tire repair shop, quite common to be found operating on streets and sidewalks. Often a flat tire would be patched without removing the wheel from the motorcycle, one advantage of having a small motorcycle.

My adventures have had some ups and downs. The ups were usually associated with being away from the general tourist flow, off in remote areas, often only reachable by off-road motorcycles or four-wheel drive vehicles. Here I found there were still places on the planet where people were living without electricity or running water, and although poor, were generous with what they had to offer, from help repairing a flat tire to a place to sleep on the floor in their house for the night when no hotels or guesthouses were available. 

Other ups were seeing some of the temples, sometimes overgrown by lush jungle and bush. There were locations where a footpath or small track would bring me to a village or temple setting that could have been out of an Indiana Jones adventure, except these were real with no buttered popcorn smells. 

The downs usually involved failed equipment, traffic or my failing to understand some of the local road etiquette. Once I was waved over at a police check point and asked to produce my papers for myself and the motorcycle. All I could show them for myself were copies of my passport. The senior officer, after consultation with the one who had waved me over, decided I should pay $5 for not having my original passport with me. I spent a hot 20-30 minutes in the 90-degree temperature trying to argue my way out of the ticket, which was my mistake. 

I later learned an average monthly salary for a traffic policeman was around $20 per month, which was close to the average monthly wage of many Cambodian workers. To supplement this meager income to pay for his motorcycle and its maintenance, the policeman was merely taxing those who he thought could afford it. My roadside adventure found me finally caving in and paying the $5 “road tax” after the police threatened to confiscate my rented motorcycle. I learned to carry some small money to pay these taxes in the future after the local motorcycle expats enlightened me to how the system worked. I reminded myself it was not much different from how I had been “taxed” by a policeman for speeding in Florida some years before after having passed a hidden slower speed limit sign. 

Globalization was creeping into Cambodia  typified here by a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant opened in 2009. Pizza Hut was not far behind.
Globalization was creeping into Cambodia, typified here by a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant opened in 2009. Pizza Hut was not far behind.
Likely I will return to Cambodia. To see how one of my earlier travels there found me touristing you can read “Angkor, Bombed Out Roads and Dog Eaters – Cambodia. ” The country still had not become so globalized that Mickey D had planted golden arches, and it was challenging enough to be more than a credit card tourist adventure destination. A $15-$20 per day motorcycle rental, hotel rooms that were clean and air conditioned for $20 - $30 per night, and food, swill and chill averaging a comfortable $100 per day made the time one of the more economical adventure packages I could put together for two to three weeks. I was able to explore some memorable places, well away from crowds and loud pipes saving lives, test my personal adventure envelope and meet some very interesting people seeking the same. 

Cambodia was not the end of the earth for motorcycle adventure, but it was a nice adventure towards that end.
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